ACLU ‘dead wrong’ on cross, VFW says

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY AU­DREY HUD­SON

Some see it as the uni­ver­sal sym­bol of sac­ri­fice in World War I, oth­ers see it as the undis­puted sign of Chris­tian­ity, but it will be up to the Supreme Court to make a fi­nal determination as to whether a 7-foot cross re­mains stand­ing in a Cal­i­for­nia desert to memo­ri­al­ize war vet­er­ans.

The cross was first erected in 1934 in what is now the fed­er­ally pro­tected Mo­jave Desert Pre­serve by a group of vet­er­ans whose doc­tors ad­vised them that the desert heat would help them re­cover from shell shock.

Vet­er­ans to­day say this war memo­rial and oth­ers like it across the coun­try that use re­li­gious sym­bols are un­der at­tack by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU).

“They are not the en­emy; they are just dead wrong,” says Joe Davis, spokesman for the Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars (VFW).

But the civil lib­er­ties group says the cross is of­fen­sive to Jewish, Bud­dhist, Mus­lim and other non-Chris­tian vet­er­ans.

“Peo­ple of ev­ery faith have fought and died for this coun­try,” says Peter Elias­berg, coun­sel for the ACLU Foun­da­tion of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “Yet we will have vet­er­ans di­vided about the idea of how you re­flect the sac­ri­fice of Amer­i­can vet­er­ans.”

“For us to choose the prin­ci­pal sym­bol of one re­li­gion that says Je­sus is the Son of God and He is di­vine and say that is an ap­pro­pri­ate way to re­flect the sac­ri­fice of peo­ple who don’t be­lieve that [. . . ] is ex­clud­ing by its very na­ture,” Mr. Elias­berg said.

“What we would like done, it is ap­pro­pri­ate to have a war memo­rial and to choose a sym­bol that re­flects every­one, and not a sym­bol that di­vides vet­er­ans by their faith,” Mr. Elias­berg said.

At a re­cent gath­er­ing at the Na­tional Press Club, just be­fore the Memo­rial Day week­end, sev­eral vet­er­ans or­ga­ni­za­tions made their case for why the Supreme Court should rule in their fa­vor dur­ing its next ses­sion, which be­gins in Oc­to­ber.

“This Memo­rial Day is more than just a three-day week­end at the beach,” Mr. Davis said. “This is about re­mem­brance.”

Vet­er­ans say the white cross is meant to sym­bol­ize the Fallen Sol­dier Bat­tle Cross, a ri­fle and bay­o­net that are a sym­bol meant to repli­cate the cross on the bat­tle­field to show honor for those who died in bat­tle.

Mark Seavey, as­sis­tant na­tional leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor for the Amer­i­can Le­gion, says vet­er­ans are de­ter­mined “to fight to save the cross from the ACLU.”

“It is our opin­ion this case is not about a sin­gle cross,” said Jim Sims, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the Mil­i­tary Or­der of the Pur­ple Heart. “It’s about thou­sands of vet­eran memo­ri­als and mon­u­ments around the coun­try. This is about the is­sue of hon­or­ing vet­er­ans.”

“If the plain­tiff is so of­fended that he might pos­si­bly come across this cross some­day, will the plain­tiff be of­fended when he drives by Arlington Ceme­tery?” Mr. Sims asked.

The ACLU filed the suit in 2001 on be­half of Frank Buono, a for­mer Na­tional Park Ser­vice em­ployee who lives in Ore­gon.

The suit worked its way through the sys­tem and, in 2004, the 9th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals ruled that the memo­rial vi­o­lated the First Amend­ment clause for­bid­ding an es­tab­lish­ment of re­li­gion and or­dered its re­moval.

To­day, the cross re­mains stand­ing, but is en­cased in a ply­wood box, hid­den from view in the vast desert.

Henry and Wanda San­doz are the care­tak­ers of the cross, which orig­i­nally was made out of wood.

“They would tear it clear off at times and throw it down be­tween the rocks, prob­a­bly at night,” Mr. San­doz says.

Af­ter a few in­ci­dents of van­dal­ism over the decades, the cross is now made out of metal pipes that are welded to the rocks be­low.

The San­dozes have to drive 160 miles into the desert to check on the memo­rial pe­ri­od­i­cally.

“It’s still there, at least it was the last time I was there, a week ago,” Mr. San­doz said.

Asked what would hap­pen if the Supreme Court ruled that the cross must be re­moved, Mr. San­doz said, “It’d be too sad.”

The vet­er­ans groups and their lawyers say such a de­ci­sion would go be­yond that, and would have reper­cus­sions not just on war memo­ri­als, but on road­side memo­ri­als that dot high­ways to mark fa­tal car crashes around the na­tion.

“It’s hard to drive through Vir­ginia and not throw a rock and hit one of those,” Mr. Seavey said.

Kelly Shackelford, the chief coun­sel for the Lib­erty Le­gal In­sti­tute, who will ar­gue the case on be­half of the vet­er­ans in the high court, calls the case “his­toric” and said it will have “huge im­pli­ca­tions.”

“If this is up­held, a lot of bad things will hap­pen,” Mr. Shackelford said. “If that cross has to be torn down, then thou­sands and thou­sands will have to be torn down in ev­ery state.”

“We sim­ply see this as a dis­grace,” Mr. Shackelford said. “It’s ou­tra­geous to say the gov­ern­ment can­not give the memo­rial back to the peo­ple who spilled their blood for them.”

LIB­ERTY LE­GAL IN­STI­TUTE PHO­TO­GRAPHS

This is the cross erected in the Mo­jave Desert in 1934 as a memo­rial to the war dead.

This is how the cross cur­rently looks, en­cased in a ply­wood box, as the re­sult of a law­suit by the ACLU.

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